RICHLAND -- The spawn is on or just starting for pikeminnow in southeast Washington, and interest in catching the juvenile salmon-eating predators may be up because of the payday.
Through June 28, 457 anglers had registered at the check station at Columbia Point Park and caught 2,238 pikeminnow, nearly half the total of 4,241 turned in last year at the same check station, said John Hone, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist assigned to the pikeminnow program.
The 2009 Northern Pikeminnow sport reward season, which began May 1 and runs through Sept. 27, pays anglers to catch these predators. Since 1991, the Bonneville Power Administration has funded the program as part of its work to improve salmon runs harmed by federal hydroelectric dams.
Northern pikeminnow feed primarily on insects and crayfish as juveniles, but start to eat juvenile salmon as they mature and are considered the primary fish predator of salmon smolts in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
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The largest of the pikeminnow can eat up to 15 salmon smolt in a day, biologists have estimated.
Anglers turned in 48,360 pikeminnow through June 28 at the 18 registration stations on the Columbia and Snake rivers, according to catch data from the pikeminnow program. The total catch in 2008 for all stations was 158,191.
The number of weekly angler registrations at all stations through June 28 was 13,441. In 2008, the total for the season was 26,097. And while it may be too early to project season-ending totals, Hone said Columbia Point likely will surpass its 2008 totals.
"It's been our best site in this area. It may be because of the convenience, and you have to figure there are more people out trying to make money with the economy the way it is," said Hone, who is assigned to stations from the Vernita Bridge Rest Area and John Day Dam on the Columbia and from the mouth of the Snake River to Hells Canyon Dam in Idaho.
The pikeminnow reward program pays $4 per fish for the first 100 returned in a season to a registration station, $5 per fish for every pikeminnow from 101 to 400, and $8 per fish for every one over 401. Minimum size is 9 inches.
Some pikeminnow also have been tagged, which is worth $500 to the angler who catches one.
So far this year, five anglers have turned in $500 fish at Columbia Point, while 10 have been recorded at the Boyer Park registration station near the Lower Granite Dam.
Pikeminnow fishing can be lucrative for the truly dedicated. In 2008, an angler who caught 7,015 fish made $57,772, followed by another fisherman who earned $44,608 for 5,185 fish.
Most of the pikeminnow being turned in at Columbia Point were caught on the Snake River, where the pikeminnow spawn is occurring. Some anglers are catching from 50 to 60 per day at Lower Monumental Dam, where some are "smolt-eating machines" of between 26 to 27 inches long, Hone said.
And the numbers of fish being turned in at Columbia Point is expected to rise in the next few weeks, as the predators begin to spawn in the Hanford Reach portion of the Columbia, Hone said.
Spawning typically occurs there in mid-June, but has been delayed this year because of cooler water temperatures.
Locating pikeminnow can be more problematic than catching them, Hone said.
Plunking, back-bouncing and drift fishing are the three primary techniques. And the ideal bait?
"Mormon crickets," Hone said. "Mormon crickets are like gold to some of the guys who fish for them. If you can get some, they will make you a good pikeminnow fisherman."
For more information about the pikeminnow program and to find registration stations, visit www.pikeminnow.org
* Kevin McCullen: 509-582-1535; email@example.com